I should be forgiven for beginning with some reluctance. After all, for almost half a century — at least since the 1970s — a sort of subgenre of opinion journalism has flourished, consisting of essays written by beleaguered Catholics addressing the question: “Why I am still a Catholic.” All too often these essays carry a discernible and unsavory subtext that goes something like this: I know it’s a bit eccentric of me, but as unfair, unfeeling and unloving as the Catholic Church has been to me and those I love, wisdom, generosity and courage enable me to endure its numerous shortcomings as I await the day the Church can accommodate these virtues of mine.
I’ll always remember how my friend Ralph McInerny, Notre Dame’s late, great philosopher, would react to such pieces. “I wonder why they do us the favor of staying,” he’d growl.
I know what Ralph meant, but whether or not “they” are doing us a favor, I’m pleased to hear that they’re staying. Whether or not I’m doing us a favor, I’m staying, too.
As to the future of this “Why I am still a Catholic” theme, all bets seem to be off since the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and the election of Pope Francis. It could be endangered if, as Jesuit Father Thomas Reese says, “it’s fun to be a Catholic again” (although I don’t remember when it was fun before), or when The New York Times columnist Timothy Egan, who knows a thing or two about disenchanted Catholics, reports that “the lapsed are listening.”
Certainly for some 15 years before the latest change of popes, frequent opportunities arose to ponder the question. Catholic news seemed routinely and predominantly to concern the rape of children by priests; the evident indifference of the bishops; the bankrupting of Catholic dioceses and religious orders; the clumsy episcopal sorties in the culture wars; the suppression — real or imagined — of religious orders of women; and the swelling demographic of people raised in, but now indifferent to, the Catholic Church.
When Benedict resigned on February 28, 2013, the church hadn’t seen anything quite like it since the 13th century, when Pope Celestine V stepped down less than six months after his own election. Celestine’s successor, Pope Boniface VIII, put that shy and humble man (who in fact reminds me a little of Pope Benedict) in prison, where he died 10 months later. Pope Francis has treated his own predecessor far more graciously, but even eight centuries later it’s clear that serious Catholics take papal resignations seriously.
“Resignation: that’s what American Catholics are feeling about our faith,” wrote one such Catholic, Paul Elie, in a New York Times op/ed piece last year. “We are resigned to the fact that so much in the Roman Catholic Church is broken and won’t be fixed anytime soon. So if the pope can resign, we can, too. We should give up Catholicism en masse, if only for a time.”
I admire Elie’s voice and work, and if he has followed his own advice and resigned from the Church, I hope and pray that it will indeed be “only for a time.”
Even so, the very phrase “resigning from the Church” sounds odd to me. It carries a whiff of the merely optional, as if belonging to the Church were a simple matter of judicious choice, like joining the Audubon Society or subscribing to The New York Times. I grew tired of birding and didn’t want to pay dues, so I quit the Audubon Society; the editorials in the Times are fatuous, and I don’t learn much that I can’t learn elsewhere from the reporting, so I have “resigned,” I suppose I could say, from its subscription list. How would I cancel my subscription to the sacraments? I never paid for it to begin with. It was a gift subscription.
And why would I cancel my subscription? Because the sacraments are dispensed — if that’s even the right word — by men (and yes, yes, it’s all men at the moment, from the pope down to the ushers) whose corporate behavior has so often seemed (and occasionally really been) misogynistic, shameful and cowardly? Men who, come to think of it, remind me uncomfortably of . . . me. No wonder that we begin every Mass, these men and all the rest of us, by asking all the saints and each other to pray for mercy rather than what we deserve. We beg not to be judged justly. The cardinals and bishops don’t deserve that gift subscription any more than I do.
Even if I wanted to, I wouldn’t know quite how to go about resigning from the Church, but if my resignation could somehow be tendered and accepted, it would undoubtedly involve my absence from Mass.
I go to Mass as often as I can, and because I live and work around the campus of Notre Dame, where Mass is so frequent and omnipresent an event, that is often indeed. Because this sounds like a pietistic boast, I hasten to add that Mass here can become as much a matter of pure reflex as any other habit, good or bad. It is a habit almost as available as sin and almost as easily indulged: There is a pre-dawn morning Mass in the Crypt; there are midday and late afternoon Masses in the Basilica; there is a noon Mass in the Mary, Seat of Wisdom Chapel of Malloy Hall; there is an 11:30 Mass at Holy Cross House; and then there are the daily and nightly Masses in the residence halls. A whole smorgasbord of liturgical styles is proffered at these: Sometimes we sing, sometimes we mumble; sometimes we join hands at the Our Father and other times nod curtly to one another at the sign of peace. The music of our worship ranges from what angelic hosts proclaim to what you might hear in any Burger King commercial. Most of the time the homilies anaesthetize us, and occasionally they awaken us to scorch our hearts.
These idiosyncrasies — of priests, cantors, lectors, acolytes and fellow worshipers — can be distracting, amusing or annoying, but they would be impossible to register any place where Mass were less available, any place people could go hungry for the Eucharist. I suppose I am an addict of sorts, a glutton: I could never resign from the Church if that meant I could no longer go to Mass, no longer feed on the Eucharist.
That, to put it indelicately, is what the Church is: a conglomeration of Eucharist-addicts. To admit or, perhaps better, to “confess” that we remain in the Church is no more than to acknowledge our need. We are blessed because of that need, according to the Beatitudes, but we shouldn’t be under any illusions about who we are and what the Church is made of. Right at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, the genealogy of Jesus Christ gives that long list of occasionally unpronounceable names to emphasize a truth put memorably by the Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe: “God’s plan is worked out not in pious people, people with religious experiences, but in a set of crude, passionate and thoroughly disreputable people. Jesus belonged to a family of murderers, cheats, cowards, adulterers and liars — he belonged to us and came to help us. No wonder he came to a bad end and gave us some hope.”
We damn well ought to be “resigned to the fact that so much in the Roman Catholic Church is broken and won’t be fixed anytime soon.” To see how broken the Church is, I have to look no further than into myself. We need help and badly.
Things have been broken from the outset: Not 24 hours after sharing the first Eucharist, our first pope denied that he’d ever clapped eyes on Jesus, and our first bishops were nowhere to be found. The Church of the 12th and 13th centuries, the Church of Saint Francis of Assisi, included a papal army which, at Béziers in France, slaughtered 10,000 or more men, women and children suspected of heresy. In more recent times, the horrifyingly widespread sexual abuse of children, and the equally horrifying and widespread failure of our bishops to care for them has impoverished and disgraced us all. And now there is our current Church. Stay tuned.
I happen to love our latest pope (and, really, who doesn’t?), but we were never promised loveable popes. We have plenty of saints to keep us company and give us heart, thank God, but we were never promised that the Church would be administered by them, nor even that the Church would be administered by minimally decent and reasonably competent people. We are not promised that Jesus will never again be denied, deserted and betrayed, nor are we promised that trusted teachers, priests, bishops and popes won’t do the denying, deserting and betraying. We are not promised that they (and we) won’t sin again and again and again, only that He will always forgive.
What we are promised is not that we possess the Truth but that He has a Church and that He will always be there, however we may deny, desert and betray Him. What we are promised is that the One who told Moses so frightfully “no one can look upon Me and live” now offers Himself to us as food. What we are promised is his presence in the Eucharist, his mercy in our sorrow, his welcome as we lie dying. What we are promised is that He loves us, and that, if we will only bring ourselves to ask, He will bless us with a ravenous hunger for intimacy with Himself. That He will save us, in other words.
I’ll stay in his Church as long as I can. I can’t afford to stay elsewhere.
Michael Garvey is Notre Dame’s assistant director of public relations. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.